April 18, 2007

Walking the Plank with "The Pirate Queen"

After years and years in which one person shows and two handers have made up too large a part of its diet, with even the musicals tending towards small portion productions like Grey Gardens and Avenue Q, Broadway seems to be bingeing on big cast shows this season. There are 44 actors in The Coast of Utopia, 38 in Les Misérables, and 34 in the straight play Inherit the Wind. But not even 41 hard-working singers and dancers are enough to make a satisfying meal of The Pirate Queen, the Les Miz duo Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical version of the story of Grace O’Malley, a 16th century Irish proto-feminist and nationalist who not only commanded a ship of pirates but maneuvered a face-to-face summit meeting with Queen Elizabeth I.

I didn’t go to the show with high expectations. I’d heard about the poor notices it got during its fall tryout in Chicago. And even though I don’t read reviews until after I’ve seen a show, I had a sense that the New York critics weren’t much happier with the changes that show doctors Richard Maltby (pitching in on the book and lyrics) and Graciela Daniele (helping out with the staging) had made for the Broadway production. So when I called to invite my niece Jennifer to see the show, I warned her that it probably wasn’t going to be the best time she’d had in the theater. Jennifer, who’s now 27, has been going to the theater since before she was old enough to read a Playbill and she has very strong opinions about what she likes (Spring Awakening) and doesn’t like (Tarzan) but she’s obsessed with the Tudor era and so I thought she might see something in the show that others hadn’t. She didn’t.

It wasn’t a total washout. We both enjoyed the Irish step-dancing numbers choreographed by the Riverdance folks, who also produced the show. And we got a kick out of the over-the-top costumes that Martin Pakledinaz created for Queen Elizabeth. But neither the book nor the music did much for us. In fact, the show proved to be the theatrical equivalent of the proverbial Chinese meal that leaves you hungry an hour later—on the bus ride home neither of us could remember even one song from the score. And if you believe New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel, The Pirate Queen’s landlord is hungry for something else too. Riedel reports (click here to read it) that agents for Live Nation, which owns the Hilton Theater where the show is playing, recently showed the space to director Susan Stroman as a possible home for the new Mel Brooks show, Young Frankenstein. Undaunted, The Pirate Queen’s producers are maintaining their swashbuckling attitude and posting daily entries to their website. Take a peek (click here to visit it); it’s more entertaining than their show and a lot cheaper.


Anonymous said...

I'm coming to town in a few weeks to see theater. Thanks, that's one I'll miss.

Anonymous said...

dear broadway person
I love reading what you have to say about theater and nyc --- there is nothing like the relationship of the actor to the audience - as soemone who lives in brooklyn - I see a lot of theater there - do you ever review brooklyn academy of music plays? would love it if you did.
your fan

michael samachson said...

In Chicago Pirate Queen opened to poor reviews. It seems they opened to even poorer reviews in New York. Just this past weekend, there was an interview with the main culprits--two of whom wrote Les Miz--they said that despite the reviews they thought the show was vastly improved. The husband and wife team who did the music was described as "affable." As a musician, film, theatre and dance critic who knows the history of many productions, but who didn't see the play in Chicago, I would like to see what went wrong.
I find your reviews smart and knowledgeable.